ALBANY — Advocates, elected officials and even actress Kerry Washington are optimistic that Democrats will soon make automatic voter registration a reality in the Empire State.
Washington, who was born and raised in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, called on lawmakers to advance legislation before the end of session that would automatically add a person’s name to the voter rolls when they interact with state government agencies unless they choose to opt out.
“New York’s outdated voting laws, with its rigid registration deadlines and other arbitrary barriers to voting, have disenfranchised upwards of 4 million residents,” the “Scandal” star wrote in a letter to Gov. Cuomo and Legislative leaders obtained by the Daily News on Friday. “As a result, the state has consistently ranked among the lowest in the nation for voter registration and turnout rates.”
Washington and other advocates say New York is guilty of putting up long-standing barriers to voter registration that negatively impact access to the ballot, particularly for communities of color, young people, and low-income communities.
Advocates often note that New York ranks 46th out of 50 states in registration and 43rd in turnout. Overall, more than 4 million eligible New Yorkers remain unregistered, as Washington notes.
Sources say the bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn), has a good chance of being passed next week as the legislative session draws to a close.
“I’m hopeful and expectant that it will move next week,” Gianaris said. “There are millions of New Yorkers who are eligible to vote who are not on the rolls and this will go a long way to enfranchising all of those people.”
Under the legislation, the state Motor Vehicles and Health departments or even public colleges would transfer information on eligible voters they deal with to the state Board of Elections, which would then send a postcard to those people, giving them a chance to select a political party or decline registration.
The push for change has also gained union support.
“Our state and country will be stronger when every eligible voter has a seat at the table. It’s time to change the rules of the game and make it more accessible for working people to really participate,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, the largest property service union in the country with over 90,000 members the state.
Gov. Cuomo included automatic voter registration in his initial budget proposal in January, but it did not make it into the final spending plan.
Earlier this legislative session, Democrats, in control of both chambers in Albany for the first time in a decade, passed several voter-friendly bills meant to increase New York’s abysmally low voter turnout, including early voting, same-day registration, the consolidation of state and local primaries and a law requiring the state to convert from paper to electronic poll books.
Advocates see the issue as a fitting cap for the end of session.
“The start of this legislative session saw the passage of unprecedented voter reforms making it easier to vote. While these reforms represented an important step forward, more work was needed to bring down long-standing barriers to registration that leave more than 4 million New Yorkers without a voice,” said AVR Now founder Sean McElwee.
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